Coming up on her one-year anniversary as Democratic Party chair, you might not think Molly Clifford has much to celebrate. Look no further that this year's county executive race, where Democratic candidate Bill Johnson lost to Republican Maggie Brooks by nearly a 2 to 1 margin.
The results, Clifford says, were surprising because polls conducted by Democrats showed Johnson's numbers consistently climbing. A poll conducted on October 21 and 22 showed Johnson getting 38 percent of the vote, up from 35 percent earlier in the month. It also had Brooks getting 46 percent of the vote, down from 48 percent. So at that point, Johnson had pulled to within eight points of Brooks, if the poll was an accurate measure.
Clifford pins the loss on several factors, including race and Johnson's refusal to rule out a property tax increase. The now-infamous "Pac-Man" ad, which accused Johnson of wanting one countywide government and school district, also played a role, she says. That ad started running on October 25.
But Johnson's loss, Clifford says, shouldn't overshadow her party's progress. The Mendon town supervisor seat went Democratic and the party held on to the district attorney seat, despite an all-out Republican effort to win it.
In the coming year, the Democratic Party will continue its efforts, Clifford says, to re-energize town committees and to recruit candidates. Strong candidates and voter education, she says, are essential to making sure Democrats vote in local elections.
Democrats are also targeting three seats in the county legislature, currently held by Republicans. Winning two of those seats would give Democrats the majority in the legislature --- a major coup, Clifford says.
In a recent interview Clifford talked about the election, the future of the Democratic Party, and her future as its leader. Following is an edited version of that interview.
City: We have the results of two polls. One was done October 10 to 12, the other, October 21 and 22. Are these the only polls the Democrats did?
Clifford: There were additional polls. Over the course of the year, and to be honest I'm not sure I'd be correct in this, there were four. These [the last two] really showed him [Johnson] climbing. That's, obviously, why we felt like things were moving in the right direction.
City: What conclusions do you draw from these polls?
Clifford: Polling is one vehicle among many when you are running a campaign. It's a pretty accurate vehicle, because you're talking to actual voters who are planning to vote. It gives you a barometer of where you are on any given day. But it's just a piece, because things happen in campaigns rapidly.
City: How do you reconcile the last poll, which showed Johnson getting 38 percent of the vote, compared to Brooks' 46 percent, with the election results? (Brooks' margin of victory was 65 to 35.)
Clifford: I think a couple of things went on. I think the Pac-Man ad probably had just started, so that would be one thing. I think that as we've seen in other races where there's an African-American running in a seat that is predominately white, the polling often doesn't hold up. The theory is that people will tell the pollster one thing, and do something completely different in the privacy of the voting booth. Do I think that was 30 points? No, I do not.
I think that as the campaign went on, Bill Johnson was very clear about his message: that the county is in crisis and that a property tax increase should not be ruled out. And I think that became part of the election results as well. People don't want to hear about property tax increases.
I think [in countering] the Pac-Man ad and whatever initial fear they may have had about consolidation and metro government, that we probably did not do as good a job as we could have making his position clear.
City: What would you do differently, in hindsight?
Clifford: I think we would have clarified Bill's position on consolidation and streamlining of services more forcefully. I think that's the main thing. His courage, really, to talk about the county's fiscal crisis and the kinds of things that need to be considered in order to deal with it, I think, are admirable. I don't know that we would have changed that.
City: Did Brooks' margin of victory surprise you?
Clifford: Yeah. I knew from the beginning it was an uphill battle. It is a Republican county. But I thought we saw encouraging signs along the way. We saw a growing number of people who did not believe Maggie Brooks' claim that you can hold the line on services, not raise taxes, not lay off people, and somehow close an operational deficit of $41 million. I had some hope that it would be different and that maybe people were ready for leadership on a Bill Johnson scale. And that turned out not to be true.
I think, in some degree, people came out to vote against Bill Johnson and against his message.
City: Where do you go from here? Four years from now, if you have a candidate, how do you improve his or her chances?
Clifford: A lot of it will depend on who the candidate is, what happens over the next four years. I am sure that the upstate economy and the regional economy will continue to be a huge issue for MonroeCounty voters. The voters have spoken on consolidation and on property taxes, and I doubt we will revisit those in any large way in four years.
An elected official is elected by the people. If people don't want consolidation, even if you think it's the best thing, people don't want it.
City: What are you going to do over the next four years in the form of outreach to Democrats?
Clifford: There are a lot of exciting things in the future. One is next year's presidential race. Also, there are three county legislature seats up next year. [Republicans Tracy Logel and George Wiedemer were elected supervisors of the towns of Chili and Penfield, respectively, and will leave the legislature. Republican Sean Hanna is rumored to be stepping down early next year.] If we win two out of three of those, we can take the majority in the county legislature. That's huge.
We will harness the energy of next year. County legislature campaigns are very different from county executive campaigns. They're much more manageable. Candidates' door-to-door activities mean a great deal.
Right now, it's a lot of candidate recruitment. It's a lot of re-energizing our committees, although I will say we had some great town campaigns this year. The results were not what we wanted, but we have some great people who are very energized.
A lot of it is voter education and really having people understand that federal elections are almost not as important as the local elections. It's a steady education, steady running of good candidates.
The Johnson campaign also brought in hundreds of new volunteers and new people interested in politics. And that is great for us. It also brought in a lot of new donors.
City: Why don't Democrats in MonroeCounty vote in greater numbers?
Clifford: I think generally because of a lack of awareness of local elections. There could be an argument then that when we have not run candidates in some towns, the Democrats may feel like, what's the point? I don't know that I totally buy that.
In the city, certainly, we have a lot of voters who are caught up in their day-to-day life. So voting becomes maybe not so important. Or people ask "Does my vote count?" We need to do a better job of convincing them that it does.
City: Who are the up-and-comers in the Democratic Party?
Clifford: I think we have some great people in the county legislature, like Carla Palumbo and José Cruz and Jay Ricci. I think we have some great people on the city council: Wade Norwood, Bill Pritchard.
And we have a number of people who are getting more active in the party who I'm hoping will consider running for office in the next few years.
City: Have you taken heat over the outcome of the county executive race?
Clifford: I have not. I had three e-mails after election day that were negatives, but they all in one form or another had to do with Bob Lonsberry. [The former WHAM 1180 host was fired this fall for making racially offensive remarks about Johnson on air.]
City: Do you think people blame you, even if they haven't come right out and said it?
Clifford: I guess I feel like I would hear it from somebody, which I haven't. I think Democratic activists understand that it was an uphill battle. The seat that Republicans wanted more than any other one was the district attorney. They made no bones about it. So holding on to that seat was huge for us. And by the way, we did manage to pick up a city court seat and Mendon supervisor. Those are gains.
People in the Democratic Party worked together around the campaign in a way that they haven't in a while. That's a very positive step for us. We raised more money than the Democratic Party ever has. Do we wish the results were different? Absolutely. But I think if you look at the bigger picture, there are a number of things that are going well.
City: Do you think you'll be here in a year?
Clifford: You know, I hope to be. I'm enjoying it very much. I think there are some great signs on the horizon. We put in a lot of work this year and we're committed to keeping it up. I think it's going to be a very exciting year ahead.